In the morning—well there is no morning here—only endless twilight—when we awoke I surveyed the pleasant spot where we'd rested. No threats echoed from the peaceful woods, the lake was crystal clear, water cascaded musically from the falls that poured between two large stone hands. No monsters roamed this lake's depths, no predators lurked among its reeds and fragrant flowers.
Evindra halted her morning ablutions momentarily. “This is the only spot in Thousandbreaths that Nyrissa doesn't control,” she said, starting to brush her hair again. “The Eldest control this one spot to show Nyrissa that she will always be subservient to their power. It's the one safe area in this place . . . as long as you don't take to the air.”
She pointed with her brush to the cliffs above where a pair of winged owlbears nested, watching us with small curiosity.
“They won't bother us as long as we stay on the ground.”
“I've been thinking about that,” said Lev walking up. “According to Zuddiger’s Picnic we're right below Nyrissa's palace.”
“Yeah, but we're going to have to backtrack and go through what looks to be a dragon's aerie.”
“Not if we do the old wind walk, but we'll have to leave the horses.”
“Well, this is the best place for them.”
I gave Autolycus the rest of his oats. “We'll be back, big fella, just stay out of trouble.”
With a gesture, Lev had us in the air, a mist drifting above the rushing waterfall, past the owlbears—causing one of them to sneeze—but try as we liked we could never get above the tallest trees. Nevertheless, we continued ascending until we could see a great palace ahead in the distance, atop a high mesa in the middle of a large lake. Lev was about to land us on a meadow at the base of a long stone causeway when he cursed and we suddenly veered over the lake.
There, in the water, lurked a tarn linnorm, much like the one we'd defeated earlier. “We could whup it, but it would cost us and we don't have the time,” he said after we'd condensed in front of a tall, thick gatehouse. Ironwood vines covered the walls and we could see guards watching us from above.
“They're ghosts,” said Evindra. “She calls this place House at the Edge of Time. She knows we're here.”
The portcullis was half raised. “She's making it easy,” Lev observed.
"Well, we have something she wants."
“Going somewhere?” A great green spirit stood barring our way.
“We've come to speak with Nyrissa.”
“She ain't receiving,” he growled.
“Oh, she'll want to see us,” I said, pulling Briar from its sheath.
I heard the spirit gasp, noticing that several others had appeared nearby in support.
“Is that a threat?” the ghost finally managed to choke out.
“No, you moron,” Briar erupted angrily. “It's a fact! I ain't seen Nyrissa in . . . oh, several millennia at least, and I think she really wants to see me. You're not gonna be the one that has to tell her you wouldn't let us in, are you?”
The ghost looked confused as his buddies wafted up.
“How do we know you're really Briar?” one of them said. An instant later his head was rolling on the ground.
“Anybody else with questions?” the sword asked as the decapitated ghost searched for his head, putting it on backwards when he found it.
When there were none, we walked into a great courtyard, impeccably maintained. There were many people there, as if celebrating a festival, but they were strange people, half-present, less substantial than the ghosts. In one corner was a monster, a powerful dragon by the looks of it, but it too seemed insubstantial. It was obvious that it didn't see either us or the crowd.
“Psst,” I heard Cane call from ahead. “Follow ZzzzzAaaah. She knows the way.”
“This place exists beyond time,” said Evindra, “and what time exists here is fragmentary and capricious—just like its master.”
ZzzzzAaaah came to a towering oak and started to climb. We followed. “Pretend you're flying as a crow flies through an endless forest,” Evindra said.
“Why? . . .”
“Just do it!”
So I thought about the crow who used to follow us around the Stolen Lands and wondered why he'd left us. Soon we were surrounded by a shimmering light, spaces yawned before us and then shut like the iris of an eye. There were glimpses of beings that are painful to remember. The tree seemed to stretch to infinity within a green tunnel, or silo, of leaves. We crept along the branches to the wide trunk.
“Let's try going up,” said Lev.
We climbed slowly, with great care. Once, Vlad slipped and fell a long way before a broad branch stopped his fall. After catching his breath, he climbed after us, albeit much more slowly until Evindra took him in charge. We'd climbed for nearly half a day when we reached Cane and ZzzzzAaaah, who were snoozing on a branch.
“There's company up ahead,” he said, yawning and standing up.
As we continued, I saw three dark shapes ahead watching us closely from the trunk, which seemed to be hollowed out. As we approached, I recognized the Knurly Witch smiling down from the left side of the hollow. To the right was a . . . I can't exactly say a man, more like a cluster of deep-red worms gathered up in the shape of a man, wearing armor and a deep cowl. In the middle was a beautiful fey woman who looked like the nude statues we'd seen seen at the entrance to Thousandbreaths, and to Irovetti's lover, (before her true shape was revealed).
“Engelidis!” It was Cane again.
“No, dear boy,” she replied with a smile. “Nyrissa. That . . . other was a trick to please horny old Count Irovetti, or whatever you called him, forced upon the spirit naga Engelidis. Once she was free of his spell she bit his head off.”
“How do you know that?” Lev asked.
“I have my ways.” She sighed before confessing, “The fey are my people. Maybe not every last one of them,” she smiled at Evindra, “but enough. I've been watching you for a very long time now and I must say that you are very . . . unusual.”
“Yes, dearies,” cackled the Knurly Witch, “it was my recommendation what got you in.”
“Well,” Lev replied. “Ask us anything, that's why we came.”
“See, that's what's so refreshing,” Nyrissa shouted, eyes flashing. “Oh, sorry. It's just that I've never met a human that didn't want to conquer me, or corrupt me, or steal what I have. What motivates you? You're human. You must want something.”
Lev watched her for a moment coolly. The only sound was the rustling of the worm guy. “Of course we do,” said Lev. “We want security, we want trade, we want the friendship of your land, like we would with any other nation. Your enemies are mine, mine yours.” We all laughed at that.
“We think we have to leave something for the future.”
“Ha, yes, well, too bad I'm beyond time.” She paused. “I'd like to get to know you better,” she ducked her head bashfully, dimples flashing. “I'd like to interview each of you individually before I come to a decision. Who wants to be first?” We all looked to Lev. “Can I bring Vlad with me?” he responded smoothly. “He has all the statistics.”
“Please yourself.” The air around them began to shimmer. “Feel free to explore my home,” she told us as they disappeared. Suddenly her head reappeared. “Watch out for the jabberwock.” Then she was gone.
I looked at Evindra. “Which way is out?”
The Knurly Witch sighed, stood, joints creaking, and stepped down to our level. “Here, dearie, hold on to me.”
I reached out, her skin was hot to touch, almost too hot. The others did the same, Cane resting his hand on ZzzzzAaaah's shoulder, “Good kitty.” Suddenly, we were standing on a great plain, where the tall grass seemed to stretch forever in every direction. Catching a scent, ZzzzzAaaah bounded away.
“Hey!” Cane exclaimed with surprise, following her. “Come back!”
We were standing in an overgrown garden beside a rippling blue pool of water. I eyed it warily, expecting a giant, hungry aquatic creature to come leaping out. That's when I heard rustling. Looking up I saw three giant flytraps doing their very best to be inconspicuous. The Knurly Witch glared at them, “Don't even think about it,” she rasped. “Come along, children, they won't bother us, they wouldn't dare.”
She led us through a sea of bushes, vines, and every variety of plant in a garden that had apparently never been tended. Then we stood before double-doors. “We'll come and get you when we need you,” she said merrily and disappeared.
“Okay,” I said with the rustle of the quickly approaching flytraps filling my ears, giving the door a tug. It opened slightly. I pulled again, harder, against the years of growth, and with a moan it opened enough for us to pass through. I quickly pulled it shut.
Inside was a dark and narrow hall. I cast a spell of light onto my torch and we saw another set of doors across a hallway. These opened easily, although they made enough noise to wake the dead. To our amazement, we were standing in a large, well-lit library.
“By the twelve!” Evindra exclaimed, excitedly pulling out a large book. “Look at this! The Manual of Gainful Exercise! I've been wanting to read this, well, forever!”
While she happily paged through the tome, I poked around the piles of paper that littered a time-worn desk. They were poems.
I haunt this dark and empty mansion
Dust collecting like a tomb
I walk up the marble staircase
Watched by the portrait of you
Staring out at the forest
From this balcony high
You let your hair down, all of amber
We made love beneath the moon
I watch the fiery brilliance
Of the setting sun
Reflected like your leaving
In the crystal chandelier
I will always remember
The way you looked that night
I have your portrait in my garden
I'm hoping love will grow
Another was even more bleak:
Spider in the Corner
I look into your eyes
In the pale moonlight
Shadow hides your thoughts
The night the whisper fled
Through the open door
The night you turned away
“Can anyone suffer so much and for so long?” I wondered as I looked over the shelves of books, many in languages I did not understand. Surely, after enough time had passed, the sharp memory would be worn dull, and only the bitter obsession remain. Would you call that love? I heard a cough, turning to see the Wriggling Man standing behind us. He held out his . . . hand, if that's what it was, squirming for Evindra. “This is it,” she said with resolve and then they were gone.
Bored with the library, I returned to the dark hall. At one end was a door, easily opened into a large ruined room, scorched, with refuse everywhere. I was about to leave when my eye caught the glint of a dusty, tarnished helm with places for many stones, but only one diamond and two fire opals left. I held it dubiously.
“You better take that,” said Briar.
“But I have no right to it.”
“Borrow it, then, but take it,” Briar said with an exasperated tone. “You're gonna need it!”
Taking its advice, I slipped it over my head, coughing as my nose filled with dust, I returned to the hallway, walking to the door at the farther end.
On the other side was another abandoned room. For the next half hour I wandered about amongst the moldering decay of many rooms, until reaching one littered with broken statuary. I stared in the gloom at the wreckage before realizing that I was being observed. I slid Briar out slowly.
“Finally!” it yelled. “Let me at her!”
“Shh!” I shushed irately. “I'm trying to be subtle here.”
“Subtle?” it laughed. “What's subtle about her?”
“I wouldn't look her in the eyes, dude,” Briar warned. “Watch her reflection in my blade, instead.”
That's when I realized the broken statues I'd been admiring were the shattered remains of her many victims, because a medusa's gaze alone can turn a man to stone.
I coughed, feeling ill. She moved towards us aggressively. I cried for Justice and Purity as I commanded her to stop. She kept coming.
“That was helpful,” Briar mocked as she accelerated towards us. “Leave it to me!” Lashing out, one the serpent heads fell twitching to the ground. She howled with pain, holding the bloody stump in her hand. Slowly, we circled one another.
“Marquand, I don't know how you lasted this long,” the sword snickered.
“I haven't,” I replied with the odd dispassion I feel in battle. “I was sundered by an owlbear a few years back, went to the afterlife and met a beautiful woman, but I returned.”
“Most recently, a drunken barbarian humiliated me in a midnight joust.”
“I get your point—look out!”
As a tornado of crackling electricity surrounded her, I cried for resistance while large bolts of lightning bounced off my helm, my chest, and Briar. “Sweet mother of Murphy!” it cried.
“Two can play at that game,” I coughed from where I had fallen, scorched, ears ringing. Barely able to focus, I whacked her with a dose of holy smite. It didn't seem to hurt her much, but it left her blinded just long enough for me to close again with Briar.
“Yeah, baby!” it yelled, tipping her off, and she was just able to duck away.
“Now, who's the fool?” I spat.
“All right, all right,” it muttered. “One to Marquand.”
About that time I noticed we were being watched. “It's time, dearie,” called the Knurly Witch. “If you're done playing.”
“Ask her,” I called back, while dodging a cold blast.
“Ah, chee,” she complained. “Phomandala, back off. You can have whatever's left, I promise.”
“Say what . . . ?” I asked as the the medusa disappeared and in her place stood a very grim looking Nyrissa.
“Looks like it's on you again,” said Briar. “Nyrissa, it's good to see you, m'luv. You don't look a day over a thousand.”
Nyrissa stared at it in wonder. “Is it really you?”
If a sword could shrug, it would have. “What can I say? Even the Eldest can't keep us apart.”
“Give him to me,” she growled like a she-wolf.
“I can't . . .”
“Give him to me!” Nyrissa suddenly rose up in anger, towering over us and gathering her power. I felt a cold rush of air and a crack seemed to form in the—here words fail me—space of the room, a dimple appeared, and what was beyond it I cannot bear to think about. So I leaped forward and met her there, plunging Briar deep into her breast. I heard the sword's triumphant yell, and her replying scream, like lovers' calls.
She choked as waves of unreality (I have no other way of describing it) rolled through the room, like the icy waves of Lake Reykal in a fierce winter's squall. I felt the spirit of Briar leaving me, too, but I forbade it.
“Sword, before you go, grant me a favor.”
“Sure, why not? You've done me one.”
“Bring her back.”
“Ah, man! I can't.”
“I can only truly resurrect the one who possesses me, them's the rules.”
Take it from an Inquisitor, dear Pino, rules are made to be broken. I took Nyrissa's hand—quickly losing life—and clasped it with my own onto Briar's hilt, using every ounce of command I owned. “Do it! Now!”
Light seemed to shred the room—the world—and I felt warmth rinse over me. Then I was standing on a rough, barren plain. Rising in front of me in the murky sky was an impossible spire, dark and foreboding.
I heard the distant sound of a crow's raspy voice. “Friend Marquand,” it seemed to say, over and over, growing louder along with the rhythmic beating of great wings until it landed with a loud thump that shook the ground in front of me. It watched me like I was a piece of carrion it was thinking of devouring.
“What are your choices?”
“On the one hand—or claw—we could right now be experiencing the bliss of nothingness. On the other, Nyrissa has regained her capacity to love. Maybe life is worth living again.”
We sat quietly for a long time. “Friend Rook,” I finally said, “What are you thinking?”
“Oh, 'How tasty it would be to peck out your eyes.' Maybe when again we meet.”
I awoke on an overstuffed sofa, like the kind Bert Askew affects, head lying on Evindra's lap. A very pregnant Nyrissa sat before me along with Cane and several squalling brats. Vlad and Lev hovered nervously in the background, while ZzzzzAaaah sat happily nearby with a passel of tiger kittens.
“Have I missed something?”
“I'm married,” Cane gushed. “To Nyrissa! These are our kids, Little Auchs, Grigori—always makes me laugh, and tiny Cyndra—that was the real name of the ax girl we killed!”
“But . . .”
“It didn't happen overnight,” he interrupted. “We've been together for years now, although it's been maybe an hour of your time. It's this crazy house of her's, it wiggles in and out of time. . . .”
“While you were visiting with the Nightmare Rook, I went to the part of my Folly where Sweet Sugar Cane and his cat were dwelling,” Nyrissa explained happily. “Like I said, I've been watching you for a long time and Cane has always intrigued me—his strength, his—brutal efficiency, his cold-blooded determination. He seemed like he belonged more to my world than yours. When you, dear Marquand, reunited me with Briar—with my capacity to love—I realized that he was the one I've been waiting for so long, to cure my broken heart. Together, we'll help the Eldest remember why they exiled me to begin with!”
“Yeah!” Cane and ZzzzzAaaah snarled.
“It's only been a few hours for us,” said Lev. “We've negotiated an understanding with Nyrissa that should benefit both our lands. Cane will stay as our first ambassador.”
Later, saying goodbye at the front gate, we waved farewell to a multitude of ghosts, the Gnurly Witch, and the Wriggling Man. There were also gathered the various monsters and demons she'd gathered to exterminate us: Phomandala—we've met—then there were barbtongued wyverns, devourers, a walking compost pile in the shape of a lizard, air elementals—well, the list goes on, there was even that jabberwock she'd warned us about, lumbering around importantly. I know Briar would have wanted to make its acquaintance.
With Cane and ZzzzzAaaah escorting us, we unfolded our boat and headed down the river to the falls, where we reunited with our horses, then rode the long trail back to the ruined castle. This time the trees watched silently and the treants kept their distance. I watched the black swans swimming near the whirlpool as it circled lazily in the water.
“Why are you staying?” I asked Cane.
He looked out over the whirlpool for a bit. “Nyrissa showed up after ZzzzzAaaah ran into the grasslands and offered to help me find her. I was suspicious at first, but—damn she was cute, and more animal than any animal I've ever been with. By the time we found ZzzzzAaaah, she was already pregnant . . . so was ZzzzzAaaah.”
“I guess I thought you'd never settle down.”
“Hey,” he said fiercely, “Tangling with them Ancients, or Eldest, or Old Gods, or whatever the hell they're called ain't gonna be like retirement.”
“Good luck, my friend,” I said as we left Cane and ZzzzzAaaah there, riding the short distance to the ruined castle which, now, stood bright and shiny, the Castle of Knives, it is called, at the edge of Thousandbreaths. We rode back between the statues of Nyrissa, this time charmingly pregnant. My helm disappeared shortly after.
“It's returned to it's dusty room,” said Evindra.
“Tell me, dear nymph,” I asked as we rode out of the forest into the rolling plains beyond. “You never said what you and Nyrissa talked about.”
Her smile was enigmatic, like all women on the edge of love. “We talked about humans,” she said. “The good and the bad of them.”
“What did she decide?”
“I don't know. She's sleeping on it,” with a rough laugh Evindra rode ahead.
At Whiterose I offered to send some worshipers of Erastil to establish a monastery there. “They'll help keep the riffraff out,” I said as we rode away, such was our hurry to get home.
“I'm nay worried about the riffraff,” she called after us, “but send your friends anyway. It'll be good to have the company. And you, friend Marquand, be sure to come back to me.”
“When I'm done.”
Remember me in your prayers,